Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, perhaps I can build on that question. Does the Minister agree that credit unions are an excellent way of helping

15 Oct 2007 : Column 526

those on low incomes to manage their finances, in contrast to some of the unregulated savings schemes that have proved so disastrous? If he does agree, what steps are the Government taking to help the spread of credit unions?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I do agree. The DWP is rolling out a £42 million growth fund to increase access to affordable credit, mainly through credit unions.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, what is the current level of personal indebtedness in the United Kingdom compared with 10 years ago? Will he also reflect on the social consequences of indebtedness and those agencies which encourage indebtedness in this country?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the aggregate level of household indebtedness stands at £1.4 trillion, but that should be seen in the context of total household assets, which are worth £7.5 trillion. The relationship of debt to assets has remained broadly constant over recent times. In fact, the relationship of debt to household income has improved since 2004.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, are the Government satisfied that they themselves have adequate access to advice on debt and pensions?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, of course we do. We have a strong record in terms of the stability of our economy, which is very helpful in sustaining the household balance sheet that we have at the moment.

Speaker’s Conference: Voting Systems

3.11 pm

Baroness Thomas of Winchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the terms of reference for the proposed Speaker’s Conference have not yet been agreed with the Speaker. It is anticipated that the review of voting systems will be completed by the end of this year, at which point Ministers will decide the next appropriate steps.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. I am encouraged that the agenda has not yet been set entirely. Will he press for voting reform for Westminster to be included as a vital part of the conference? After all, the Prime Minister has said that he wants a national debate about strengthening our democracy. If voting reform is left out of the Speaker’s Conference it will be the elephant in the room.

15 Oct 2007 : Column 527

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I first congratulate the noble Baroness on her birthday today. I am afraid that I have to disappoint her. I am not prepared to press in the direction that she has suggested. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that he wishes the Speaker’s Conference to be concerned with issues to do with the decline in turnout. I do not think that it should be distracted by going down the cul-de-sac suggested by the noble Baroness.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, will the Speaker’s Conference be able to look at the review of the Scottish elections? This House was promised that the reports on those elections would be available during the Recess but, as of last Thursday, they did not appear to be available to anyone.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Gould review is undertaking a look at the experience of the elections in Scotland. My understanding is that it is due for publication shortly, but I do not have a definitive date. I am sure that it will prove of great interest to all of us.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for not giving a birthday present to the noble Baroness. I tell my noble friend, the noble Baroness and her colleagues that the introduction of proportional representation in Scotland has been an absolute tragedy. We have seen chaos, confusion and cuts. At local government level, we see the Liberal Democrats in an unholy alliance with the Scottish National Party. Will my noble friend assure us that, because of this experience, we will stick to the tried and tested system of first past the post, which has given us stability in this country for decades and centuries?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with what my noble friend has to say. However, the Scottish system cannot be so bad given that it managed to elect him.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am tempted to ask the noble Lord exactly what voting system the Government would have liked for the election that they never called, but that might be unfair. Instead, I should like to ask another question. Rather than fiddling around with adjustments to the voting system, might the Government do some work to root out the corruption that has crept into the electoral system encouraged by their desperation to increase voting? As a result, all that they have done is increase the number of people voting who should not have voted at all.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Government have taken significant steps in recent years to tighten up on the security of the electoral process. Those measures were established by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and we will keep them under review. I have no doubt that in the reviews we have heard about today we will continue to make sure that the election system is as scrutinised and secure as possible.

15 Oct 2007 : Column 528

Lord Rennard: My Lords, if the Government are concerned about low voter turnout, does the Minister not consider that the Speaker’s Conference should address the problem that all political parties are encouraged to direct their resources to a small number of voters who are considered to be floating in a minority of constituencies that are deemed to be marginal, thereby excluding many voters from their attention during the campaign? If the Government are concerned about corruption within the electoral process, should they not be concerned that this system of concentrating on floating voters in marginal constituencies means that a very rich man—perhaps someone like the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft—may consider that he can buy one, two or more constituencies in the same way that constituencies in rotten boroughs were purchased a few centuries ago?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I can see why the noble Lord wants a change in the electoral system, but we should not be talking about party interest. The question is: what is the best interest for the public? I am sure that if the Speaker’s Conference looks at turnout, it will come through with some very interesting points. I have not seen hard evidence to suggest that a change in voting system would increase turnout. Further, one of the great advantages of the first past the post system is that it puts extremist parties at a great disadvantage. There is a close relationship between the Member of Parliament and the electorate. We would have to think very carefully before we went down the path that the noble Lord suggests.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, has the Minister given—and will the Speaker’s Conference give—any thought to how elections to this House might take place?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there are as many ideas about electoral systems as there are about reform of your Lordships' House. The White Paper that led to the votes in the House and the other place in the spring discussed voting systems. I assure the noble Viscount that, as we take forward discussions on reform of your Lordships' House, the question of which voting system is to be adopted will be given careful consideration.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Speaker’s Conference of 1965 considered the single transferable vote on a motion put to it by me, but that the record of those proceedings is not in the Libraries of either House of Parliament? Would he cause inquiries to be made of libraries around the country so that at least those who are considering the matter currently would have the benefit of the 1965 considerations?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there will be queues outside the library at Kings Heath when we make sure that the information is available. I shall certainly take that point. My understanding is that at that Speaker’s Conference the Government accepted 60 of the 71 recommendations made.

15 Oct 2007 : Column 529

Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

3.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 125 [Reference of matter by councillor to overview and scrutiny committee]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 191:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Scott will speak to Amendment No. 192.

Amendment No. 191 relates to the right of a councillor to make oral and not only written representations to an overview and scrutiny committee. My noble friend Lord Greaves raised the matter at the previous stage of the Bill and, like him, I found it, and still find it, odd that we need the new Section 21A at all. It is difficult to imagine that authorities operate in such a manner that there are restrictions on individual members who could not, without the benefit of this new section, raise matters. But if there are such restrictions, it is right that we should consider how a reference by an individual member to an overview and scrutiny committee might be dealt with.

In Committee, the Minister said:

that is the reference to overview and scrutiny—

In fact, the new provision leaves it to the committee. I assume that the committee sets its own procedure. If it is not left to the committee, then it is left to the authority as a whole. But it does not leave it to the member in question, and that is my point. My instincts are that authorities should set their own procedures, but if it is necessary for primary legislation to provide for the reference to overview and scrutiny we should consider the mechanisms as well.

I am surprised that a member might be required to confine himself to written representations. My noble friend Lord Greaves asked the Minister to consider the guidance that might back up this new section and, particularly, to make clear that what is in the Bill is a minimum provision. He made that point just before he withdrew his amendment and so the Minister did not have an opportunity to answer. I hope that the amendment will give the Government a chance to commit to considering whether this is a point for guidance. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, my Amendment No. 192 is grouped with Amendment No. 191. It also deals with the question of overview and scrutiny committees and their remit.

15 Oct 2007 : Column 530

The Bill strengthens and builds on local area agreements. It certainly places much more emphasis on local area agreements as the vehicle by which local decision making is conducted in an area involving the local authority and other partners, including health organisations. The local area agreement will become key in determining future funding for local authorities and it is vital that local authority overview and scrutiny committees are able to scrutinise the way in which their local area committee is working. It is not clear from the debates we have had so far how the local area agreements will be scrutinised, both in terms of how they are formed and how the targets are arrived at and negotiated with central government. The amendment seeks, therefore, to place in the Bill the right of a local overview and scrutiny committee to scrutinise the way in which its leader behaves on behalf of the council when attending local area forums and agreeing targets.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we debated Amendment No. 191 in Committee. Subsection (1) requires a local authority to make arrangements which enable any member to refer a matter to the overview and scrutiny committee. One would expect—the noble Baroness understands this—that these arrangements would make clear the standards to be followed so that the recipient committee can have a clear idea of what the matter is about. In practice, it seems unlikely that that would mean anything other than that the member would be expected to put something coherent in writing to the committee.

With regard to the noble Baroness’s concerns about oral representations, subsection (6)(b), which Amendment No. 191 seeks to strengthen, is clear that this is not about referring a matter to the committee but about persuading it to take the matter up and exercise any of its powers. The amendment therefore seeks to ensure that these representations may be made in writing or orally in person. I am not clear why the amendment would be necessary, simply because there is no reason why, when a member is referring a matter, he or she should not indicate at that point that they wish to make oral representations about the reasons the committee should exercise its powers under Section 21 of the LGA. There is no doubt that an ONS committee will be able to listen to oral representations if it so chooses, and the noble Baroness reiterated the point that the committee ought to have some discretion at that point.

The amendment would provide something stronger by giving the councillors the right to appear in person before a committee. I am afraid that my argument has not advanced very much since we debated this in Committee. Given the spirit in which we are looking at how ONS committees are responsible for their own work and the whole devolution agenda, it would be rather heavy-handed and intrusive for the law to require committees to listen to oral representations from members who have referred matters to them.

There is another danger. If the councillor knew that all he had to do was turn up and make an oral presentation, there would be a tendency to seek that route rather than preparing careful written representations.

15 Oct 2007 : Column 531

When it comes to making an argument, however, written representations are important. At that point there might also be a temptation for members of the committee to be confused between the process of being persuaded to take a matter up and actually listening to the substantive argument and investigating it at that point. There is a balance to be struck here, and we have got the balance right in allowing for this discretion. We can be assured, with regard to both this and the next amendment, that we can cover committee procedures in guidance so that people are not confused.

On LSP, I accept the general argument that the noble Baroness has made. Under the terms of the ONS committee, it can require partner authorities that are partners in the LAA to come and give evidence. However, she is asking for the LSP itself, as the container for so much of what would be reflected in the local area agreement, to be able to come and do so. From the way the amendment is drafted and the fact that we have discussed this with regard to amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I am sure she knows that there are serious legal problems with the fact that the LSP is not a legal entity but a voluntary association. LSPs do not belong to local authorities; they are independent bodies, and do not have functions that can be discharged under them.

For all those reasons it is difficult to conceive of the amendment on that basis, but the idea behind it is important. There would be profound difficulties in tackling the scrutiny of LSP partners that were not public authorities—for example, charities and voluntary organisations. The powers of the ONS committees are wide. The amendment does not seek to extend them, but it is worth reviewing them. By virtue of Section 21(2) of the Local Government Act they can tackle issues far beyond the direct responsibility of the executive. Specifically, they can review or scrutinise decisions made or other action taken in connection with the discharge of any functions that are not the responsibility of the executive, and make reports and recommendations about them. Indeed, they can make reports or recommendations to the authority or the executive on any matters that affect the authority’s area or the inhabitants.

It is true that the powers of overview and scrutiny committees to require information and evidence from the world at large are limited, but there is no limit to the information they can request and the Bill extends their powers substantially in that respect. They will be able to require information from the authorities named in the Bill as partner authorities, and may require those authorities to have regard to the committee’s reports and recommendations in the discharge of their functions.

3.30 pm

If the LSP is chaired by the leader of the authority, he can certainly be required to appear to represent its views. However, there is a growing tendency for LSPs not to be chaired by the leader of the authority. Some of the most effective LSPs are chaired by businessmen, or they may be chaired by someone from the voluntary sector. There is no power in the legislation to require those people to appear to represent the views of the

15 Oct 2007 : Column 532

LSP in relation to the local area agreement. However, it would be astonishing if they were asked to appear to review progress and did not turn up. I hope that the scope of the Bill is good enough for the noble Baroness, because the powers to refer local government matters given to individual members by Clause 125 are substantial. The powers of overview and scrutiny of the various partner arrangements and the presentation of arguments, progress and policies will be effective enough to give the overview and scrutiny committee not only a good view of what is going on but the ability to hone in on what is most challenging. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. It has helped to clarify my concerns about an inconsistency of approach, because the thrust of the Government’s arrangements for the Executive was improving transparency so that we knew exactly who made decisions and that local people could hold them to account. Local strategic partnerships are becoming increasingly influential and powerful—I have no argument with that—but if they are chaired by someone who is prominent in the local business community, that person will not have been elected or be accountable to anyone. The body that is setting targets and negotiating with government about future funding streams will not be directly accountable to anyone. My amendment would create a mechanism whereby the local strategic partnership could be held publicly to account by someone—in this case, the overview and scrutiny committee—because they could publish its accounts. While I am prepared to accept that there may be some legal problems, a body is being created that is not accountable. That is at that heart of my difficulty with the provisions. Given that I know that the Government’s intention throughout the Bill is to create better lines of accountability, leadership and transparency, I cannot see how those things will match up.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, my noble friend has made her concerns quite clear. Amendment No. 192 was not intended to require the local strategic partnership to be called before an overview and scrutiny committee; its purpose was to extend,

to include,

when “a function of the authority” is being referred to. That seemed to be the route, albeit a slightly clumsy one, available to us to get to the leader’s position, because the leader will act on behalf of the authority. The Minister said that guidance may be issued in relation to both matters. I dare say that an overview and scrutiny committee which feels the need, and individual members who feel the need, to push at the boundaries will do so—I hope that they do.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page